Commission us: Sex, death and long grass in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba | Peter Bradshaw

You asked us to review the Japanese film-maker's Devil Woman, a sensual nightmare based on a Buddhist parable. Here goes ...

It's a pleasure to take this commission from tomkun: "Could u review Onibaba, or Devil Woman (1964) directed by Kaneto Shindo? My Dad never stops going on about it."

It surfaces rarely here, though I, along with many other reviewers, drew attention to Onibaba when it was scheduled at London's BFI Southbank in 2008, as part of its "Wild Japan" season. "Wild" is right.

Onibaba is a chilling movie, a waking nightmare shot in icy monochrome, and filmed in a colossal and eerily beautiful wilderness: a Japanese susuki field, or pampas-grass field — the movie was shot in the north-western section of the Inba swamp in Japan's Chiba prefecture. The nearest British equivalent is possibly the East Anglian fenland, or possibly the Kent marshes from which Dickens imagined the terrifying Magwitch emerging in Great Expectations — though I think neither approximates the featureless, yet menacing quality of the landscape that comes across on screen here, and of course the extraordinary height of the grasses which, significantly, allow people to hide themselves.

Shindo, took as his starting point a Shin Buddhist parable that he heard as a child: an old woman is furious with her daughter-in-law for continually neglecting household chores to go off to the temple and pray. She hides in the bushes along the path and when the younger woman comes along, she jumps out wearing a demon mask, terrifying her. Buddha punishes the old woman for her dishonesty and impiety by sticking the mask to her face. The old woman desperately claws and scrabbles at the grotesque mask but she can't get it off; eventually she prays to Buddha to let her remove it and Buddha mercifully agrees, but his gentle mercy reveals itself as something quite different when the woman wrenches it off and takes the flesh of her face with it.

Shindo's transformation of the tale into an erotic noir tale of psychological horror is brilliantly subversive, and yet in its way intuitive and faithful. His secularised version preserves the fear while removing Buddha; there is no God up there in the vast endless sky above this wasteland, but Buddha's ferocious vengefulness, the cause-and-effect pattern of crime and punishment is transferred to the arena of paranoid human wrongdoing: and in fact Shindo does appear to strike a supernatural chord in the movie's final movement.

The setting is now war-torn 14th-century Japan. The menfolk have been taken away as soldiers and now two women are left alone in the swampland, an older woman and her daughter-in-law, played by Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura. They are murdering scavengers who creep up in the long grass on fugitive Samurai deserters or simply soldiers who are lost, kill them, strip the bodies of valuable armour and adornments to be sold to a local fence, and tip the corpses down a secret pit, the bottom of which is becoming a grotesque tomb. One day, out of nowhere, a wily local known to them both suddenly appears: Hachi (Kei Sato). With much insensitive grinning, he reveals that he has deserted the army and that Kichi (that is, their husband/son) has been killed in battle; then, with a natural criminal's instinctive nose for a lucrative scam, he wants to know what they are up to.

Hachi's appearance, and his news, triggers an explosive mixture of erotic tension and suspicion in the two women. He clearly lusts after the younger woman, and Kichi's widow now wakes up to the fact that she has been without a man for years. The older woman suspects that they will become a couple, pursue the robbing-murdering game on their own and do without her — leave her to starve or perhaps just murder her. In an attempt to compete with her daughter-in-law for this man's attention, to undermine their alliance, or perhaps because she, too, has had a sensual longing newly awoken in herself, she makes her own sexual offer — and it should be remembered that this woman is not ancient in the sense we might think. The actor, Nobuko Otowa, was 39 at the time of filming and is not made up to look particularly older than that. Jitsuko Yoshimura was 19. She becomes infuriated at the younger woman creeping off to Hachi's hut to have sex with him (as opposed to going off to the temple to pray) and so the terrifying demon mask enters the story.

Shindo unfolds the tense, taut drama in a compelling atmosphere of amoral horror: the older woman resents the younger's lack of grief at her son's death and fears its implications; the younger resents the older's bullying. But neither has a moral right to resent that or anything at all. They have the blood of countless people on their hands. Thus far, all that has been real to these women has been survival. But now something is real: sex, an overwhelmingly animal, sweaty sensuality.

The action of the movie is interspersed with brilliantly composed, almost abstract compositions of the wasteland itself: either long shots of the scarily huge prairie, or painterly close-ups of the grasses themselves: dagger-like blades. At night-time, Shindo picks out the various locations with stark key lighting, as if some Buddha or police unit had shone a searchlight on a crime scene: a stylised effect which makes no attempt whatever to approximate moonlight. Night or day, the swampland looks apocalyptic, like the scene of the end of the world.

The films that might be placed, as it were, alongside Onibaba are Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman Of The Dunes (1964), Nagisa Oshima's In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) and Takashi Miike's Audition (1999). The angular stab of horror, combined with frank sexuality, makes arguable sense in this context. Placing Onibaba alongside western movies like Polanski's Knife In The Water (1962) or Henri-Georges Cluzot's Les diaboliques (1955) is a way of critically bringing out the dimension of psychological tension and fear.

Either way, Onibaba deserves something more than cult status. There is a handsome DVD edition from Criterion.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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